David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Probably I was in the war.
—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)
A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.
In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”
At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”
Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.
“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…
Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)
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The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves. Read more…
Justin Quarry | Longreads | January 2018 | 22 minutes (5,444 words)
When my father died in the winter of 2000, back when I was newly 19, the single thing he left me was a nine-millimeter pistol. The day after his funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have it, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging — spare bullets, along with the pistol, spilling from the Styrofoam encasement as I opened the discolored box.
This inheritance both surprised and confused me. For one thing, though I’d spent my early childhood with rifles and shotguns racked against the walls of our home and the rear window of my father’s Jeep, with countless taxidermied deer heads gazing down at me apathetically, I’d never known my father to own a handgun. For another, unlike all the other men in my family, I’d never spent a second in a tree stand, didn’t even recall playing with toy guns; rather than pretending to shoot deer or Iraqi soldiers, for instance, one Christmas I requested and received a custom-made deer costume for my Cabbage Patch doll, Casey.
The pistol also puzzled me because I hadn’t necessarily expected to inherit anything at all from my father. Over the prior 10 years, my mother had to fight for nearly all the child support she’d received, and it was an open secret that, when my mother had divorced him, he’d spent the $20,000 my great-grandmother had given him to split between my older brother and me, once we were of age, on a revenge Grand Prix. My mother had pined for a Grand Prix in the months before she left him, and so he bought one for himself, kept it immaculate, and always left it in the furthest reaches of parking lots, where it was least likely to get dinged.
Two weeks before I’d gotten the gun, and hardly a month into my second semester at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, my father’s family called me back home to Northeast Arkansas to visit him for the last time I would see him conscious. Only a week after that, they called me home again to see him, then in a coma, die.
That day, when we all knew his body was finally going to expire as we listened to its death rattle, none of the other men in my family, which is to say none of the people closest to him, could bear to be with him. My brother, who was six years older than me and had lived with my father after our parents divorced, was too afraid. My grandfather, who was also my father’s best friend, my father his namesake, was too emotionally unstable, sleepless for weeks, having had a dream in which my father was lost on a hunt at night, and as he called for my grandfather, no matter which way my grandfather pointed his light, no matter which way he stumbled in the woods, my grandfather couldn’t find his son. And so there I was at my father’s bedside with the women of the family — with the women, where I usually was. I thought that as one of his three closest living relations, even though he and I weren’t at all intimate, it was my place to be with him when he died.
[Fiction] A story about an unemployed ethnomusicologist, gray whales, and Miranda July:
‘Garfield was my favorite president,’ said Brandon.
‘James A. Garfield?’ said Kara. ‘President from March to July of 1881?’
‘From Ohio?’ she said.
‘That’s the one,’ said Brandon.
He said: ‘I think he would have proven to be an effective leader if he’d been given the chance.’
Charles put his hand on Kara’s knee.
‘That’s funny,’ said Charles. ‘Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, is my favorite presidential assassin, and it’s not just because we share a name.’
A father and son visit a collector of Nazi paraphernalia in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina:
My father glanced over his shoulder at me and emitted a wheeze-burst of laughter—an exhalation intended to express disbelief. He had led me to an underground vault containing the artifacts of the last century’s most brutal regime, and he now seemed downright giddy. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to think or what to say. I found it difficult to process what any of this meant. That is, I didn’t know why it was here, how it had gotten from where it had been made to where it was now. Were we in the presence of some kind of monster? Or had he created this space for stuff he deemed historically significant, buried it in a moisture-controlled vault because he fancied himself one of history’s unbiased curators? Was this the product of an obsessive and sympathetic mind, one which interpreted the mainstream records of history as having been unduly cruel to the Third Reich, which had been a movement, in his eyes, about nationalism, about ancestors, about revering and honoring the past? I didn’t know. And, honestly, I was afraid to ask.
Kavita Das | Longreads | January 2018 | 18 minutes (4,512 words)
Just two weeks before my birth in November 1974, my parents moved into their first house, a split-level ranch in Bayside, Queens. They had been in America for less than a year, having first emigrated to England from their homeland of India so that my father, a gastroenterologist, could pursue his Ph.D., and my mother, an obstetrician-gynecologist, could receive additional medical training.
While my mother was giving birth to me my father was home raking leaves, because it was fall and leaves need raking, and because fathers were not considered crucial to child birthing in Indian culture. I came into the world around midday, a glowing, healthy, baby of six pounds, seven ounces.
In the hospital, after the nurses had brought me to my mother’s bedside, she began to give me my first feeding. As soon as I started to hungrily suck on the bottle, milky formula began trickling out of my nose. She wiped it away and began again, but the formula, once again, leaked from my nostril. That’s when she suspected that, although I had been spared the perceivable deformity of a cleft lip, nestled between my plump cheeks and hidden behind my rosebud lips, was a cleft palate.
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The utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.
It is sometimes said that the twentieth century began with utopian dreaming and ended with nostalgia, as those alternative futures once envisioned seemed by then almost entirely discredited. However, it was never quite so straightforward. The challenge to envisage how to live differently, in ways that seem better than the present, never entirely disappears.
The most prominent American utopian studies scholar, Lyman Tower Sargent, notes that dystopian scenarios increasingly dominated the speculative literary form as the twentieth century progressed. In the UK, the equally eminent utopian studies scholar Ruth Levitas concurs, pointing out, for instance, that as sociology became institutionalized in the academy, it became ‘consistently hostile’ to any utopian content.
What stands out in speculative fantasies of the future arising towards the end of the twentieth century are their darkly dystopic leanings, whether in books, cinema, comics or elsewhere. The best known would include the mass surveillance depicted in the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s satirical novel We (1921).
Set in the future, it describes a scientifically managed totalitarian state, known as One State, governed by logic and reason, where people live in glass buildings, march in step, and are known by their numbers. England’s Aldous Huxley called his dystopic science fiction Brave New World (1932), where again all individuality has been conditioned out in the pursuit of happiness. Bleaker still was George Orwell’s terrifyingly totalitarian 1984 (1945): ‘If you want a picture of the future,’ Orwell wrote in 1984, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’
These imaginings serve primarily as warnings against futures that are often read, as with Zamyatin and Orwell, as condemnations of Soviet society. The happiness expressed in Huxley’s ‘utopic’ universe depicts a deformed or sinister version of the route where all utopias end up, as totalitarian regimes, in which free will is crushed. As the Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman later noted: ‘From a means of winning people over to the ideal of socialism, the utopian novel had become one of the most effective means of frightening people off it.’
Post-1945, public intellectuals for the most part broadcast the view that democracy and utopic thinking were opposed, the latter declared both impossible and dangerous. The influential émigré and British philosopher of science Karl Popper argued in his classic essay ‘Utopia and Violence’ (1947) that while ‘Utopia’ may look desirable, all too desirable, it was in practice a ‘dangerous and pernicious’ idea, one that is ‘self‐defeating’ and ‘leads to violence’. There is no way of deciding rationally between competing utopian ideals, he suggested, since we cannot (contra Marxism) scientifically predict the future, which means our statements are not open to falsification and hence fail his test for any sort of reliability.
Indeed, accusations of ‘totalitarian’ thinking were the chief weapon of the Cold War, used by Western propaganda to see off any talk of communism. In the USA it was employed to undermine any left or labour movement affiliations, as through the fear and financial ruin inflicted upon hundreds of Americans hauled before Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s – over half of them Jewish Americans. Read more…